The news that Scott McNealy has stepped down as CEO and that Jonathan Schwartz would be taking over was widely anticipated. Sun's fortunes have gotten worse and worse over the last couple of years. Ed Zander, who was on Documentum's board for a while, left out of frustration and has made a tremendous difference at Motorola. Based upon people I know who have gone into Sun after acquisitions have described situations of how Sun works as hapless.
At the core of Sun's DNA is a sense that proprietary advantage must be protected at all cost. That cost is often loss of marketshare. I have been observing Sun for a very long time, usually at arms length. When I was at Berkeley, I would see Bill Joy in the corridors of Evans Hall working on what would become BSD Unix. I met him once while he was discussing the design of sockets with my advisor, Larry Rowe. (I'm sure Bill wouldn't remember me.) Because of the relationship between Ingres's founders and Bill Joy, Ingres worked with early versions of the Sun Workstation. Sun Unix was the one of the first Unix systems we ported Ingres to.
Since those early days, Sun was able to make a mark in the emerging Unix marketplace and sometimes acted like it was a gorilla, when it really wasn't. Sun pushed one flavor of Unix, BSD and their Solaris derivative, while others pushed the System V version of Unix. Rather than trying to rationalize the flavors of Unix to build a bigger Unix marketplace, they fought for dominance. The same thing happened again as they fought to have their flavor of Unix windowing system, SunView, become the dominant Unix windowing system, they battled vainly against Motif that vendors like HP supported.
Sun never lacked the ability in those early days to innovate and have incredibly bright people come up with new CPUs, operating system extensions, windowing systems or network infrastructure. However, they constantly shot themselves in the foot by trying to protect a proprietary advantage. Through lack of cooperation and strategic thinking, they lost early advantage and let Microsoft take over the desktop, including in their stronghold in Wall Street, and they let open source Linux walk all over the hardware advantage they had in running incumbent enterprise systems.
As Sun created Java, they demonstrated their ability again to be an innovation master. However, they still have not let go of their proprietary advantage. Jonathan Schwartz says all the right things in terms of collaboration and his theme of participation, but they aren't quite there in opening up the potential innovation of Java. The JCP is an interesting political model that may have possibly worked in solving the differences it had with IBM, HP, DEC and others, but I'm not sure it has created what an open source model could create.
While at Documentum, I met Jonathan Schwartz to discuss our initiatives in knowledge management and web content management. (Jonathan probably doesn't remember either.) He hadn't been at Sun that long, but he was responsible for software strategy. He is a very likable guy and still looks like he is 18 years old. During the meeting we were at a point where I needed to give him the PowerPoint presentation that we were walking through. He paused for a moment and explained that Windows and PowerPoint were not allowed in Sun, but he assured me that he was special and had access to a PC.
This indicates both with what's wrong with Sun and that Jonathan possibly, just maybe, might be the person who can fix it. Here is a person that recognizes a world outside Sun's orbit and that cooperation will be a way to building a bigger market. This is a lesson that IBM has taken on much better than Sun. The stakes for Sun to understand this will be as big or bigger than they have been in the past.
Sun's cards have dwindled as a result of past mistakes and it is understandable that they would like to hold on to the Java card. But Java, in software years, is getting old. It is evolving in a very clunky way. Eating on Java's heels are Ruby on Rails, .NET and PHP. Sun has dismissed these as content application environments, but we have news for Sun, Java is involved in content applications as well. These platforms are evolving faster and gaining in popularity faster than Java. RoR and PHP using open source and .NET having the entire force of the richest man in world behind it. What is at stake is Sun's last card.
This can be one of those major turning points in computing history. Will Sun end up as the BUNCH (Burroughs, Univac, NCR, CDC and Honeywell) did against IBM? - irrelevant. Or will Sun rediscover its innovation roots to once again challenge a resurgent IBM and a seemingly invincible Microsoft? An even bigger question is whether Mr. Schwartz can change 25 years of Sun DNA?